The Great Events by Famous Historians, Vol 8

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Author: James Gairdner  | Date: A.D. 1483

Murder of the Princes in the Tower

A.D. 1483

JAMES GAIRDNER

The brief reign of Richard III, 1483-1485, left for historians one subject of dispute which even to our own day has not been finally determined—his alleged murder of his nephews, King Edward V and Richard, Duke of York, sons of Edward IV. These princes at the supposed time of their death were about thirteen and nine years of age respectively.

Before his usurpation Richard III, last of the Plantagenet line, was known as the Duke of Gloucester. He served in the Wars of the Roses, and on the death of Edward IV, April, 1483, he seized the young Edward V and caused himself to be proclaimed protector. He then caused his parliament to set the two princes aside as illegitimate, and they were imprisoned in the Tower of London. On June 26, 1483, Richard assumed the crown, and soon after the death of the princes was publicly announced.

In Gairdner’s discussion we have the results of the best historical inquiries concerning this most important question of Richard’s career.

A great amount of public anxiety prevailed touching the two young princes in the Tower. They were virtually prisoners, and their confinement created great dissatisfaction. A movement in their behalf was gotten up in the South of England while Richard was away. In Kent, Sussex, and Essex, in Hampshire, Wiltshire, and Dorset, even as far west as Devonshire, cabals were formed for their liberation, which all appear to have been parts of one great conspiracy organized in secret by the Duke of Buckingham. By the beginning of October some disturbances had actually taken place, and the following letter was written in consequence by the Duke of Norfolk to one of his dependents in Norfolk:

"To my right well-beloved friend, John Paston, be this delivered in haste."

"Right well-beloved friend, I commend me to you. It is so that the Kentish men be up in the Weald and say that they will come and rob the city, which I shall let [i.e., prevent] if I may. Therefore I pray you, that with all diligence you make you ready and come hither, and bring with you six tall fellows in harness; and ye shall not lose your labor, that knoweth God; who have you in his keeping.

"Written at London the 10th day of October.

"Your friend,

"J. NORFOLK."

The rumor of the projected movement in behalf of the princes was speedily followed by the report that they were no more. Of course they had been removed by violence. Regarding the time and manner of the deed no news could then be obtained, but the news that the deposed King and his brother had been assassinated was spread with horror and amazement through the land. Among all the inhumanities of the late civil war there had been nothing so unnatural as this. To many the tale seemed too cruel to be true. They believed that the princes must have been sent abroad to defeat the intrigues of their friends. But time passed away and they never appeared again. After many years, indeed, an impostor counterfeited the younger; but even he, to give credit to his pretensions, expressly admitted the murder of his elder brother.

Nevertheless, there have been writers in modern days who have shown plausible grounds for doubting that the murder really took place. Two contemporary writers, they say, mention the fact only as a report; a third certainly states it, incorrectly, at least, in point of time; and Sir Thomas More, who is the only one remaining, relates it with certain details which it does seem difficult to accept as credible. More’s account, however, must bear some resemblance to the truth. It is mainly founded upon the confession of two of the murderers, and is given by the writer as the most trustworthy report he had met with. If, therefore, the murder be not itself a fiction, and she confession, as has been surmised, a forgery, we should expect the account given by Sir Thomas More to be in the main true, clear, and consistent, though Horace Walpole and others have maintained that it is not so. The substance of the story is as follows: Richard, some time after he had set out on his progress, sent a special messenger and confidant, by name John Green, to Sir Robert Brackenbury, the constable of the Tower, commanding him to put the two princes to death. Brackenbury refused to obey the order, and Green returned to his master at Warwick. The King was bitterly disappointed. "Whom shall a man trust," he said, "when those who I thought would most surely serve me, at my command will do nothing for me?" The words were spoken to a private attendant or page, who told him, in reply, that there was one man lying on a pallet in the outer chamber who would hardly scruple to undertake anything whatever to please him. This was Sir James Tyrell, who is described by More as an ambitious, aspiring man, jealous of the ascendency of Sir Richard Ratcliffe and Sir William Catesby. Richard at once acted upon the hint, and calling Tyrell before him communicated his mind to him and gave him a commission for the execution of his murderous purpose. Tyrell went to London with a warrant authorizing Brackenbury to deliver up to him for one night all the keys of the Tower. Armed with this document he took possession of the place, and proceeded to the work of death by the instrumentality of Miles Forest, one of the four jailers in whose custody the princes were, and John Dighton, his own groom. When the young princes were asleep, these men entered their chamber, and, taking up the pillows, pressed them hard down upon their mouths till they died by suffocation. Then, having caused Sir James to see the bodies, they buried them at the foot of a staircase. But "it was rumored," says More, "that the King disapproved of their being buried in so vile a corner; whereupon they say that a priest of Sir Robert Brackenbury’s took up the bodies again, and secretly interred them in such place as, by the occasion of his death, could never come to light." Sir James, having fulfilled his mission, returned to the King, from whom he received great thanks, and who, Sir Thomas informs us, "as some say, there made him a knight."

It has been maintained that this story will not bear criticism. What could have induced Richard to time his cruel policy so ill and to arrange it so badly? The order for the destruction of the children could have been much more easily, safely, and secretly executed when he was in London than when he was at Gloucester or Warwick. Fewer messages would have sufficed, and neither warrants nor letters would have been necessary. Was it a sudden idea which occurred to him upon his progress? If so, he might surely have waited for a better opportunity. If not, he might at least have taken care to sift Brackenbury before leaving London, so as to be sure of the two he intended to employ. Is it likely that Richard would have given orders for the commission of a crime, without having good reason to rely upon his intended agent’s boldness and depravity?

But, having tried Sir Robert’s scruples, and found them somewhat stronger than he anticipated, what follows? It might have been expected that Sir Robert’s respect for his master, if he had any, would have been diminished; that the favor of his sovereign would have been withdrawn from him; and perhaps that the tyrant, having seen an instance of the untrustworthiness of men in matters criminal and dangerous, would have learned to become a little more circumspect. But the facts are quite otherwise. Sir Robert continued long after in the good graces of his sovereign, always remained faithful to him, even when many others deserted him, and finally fell in battle bravely fighting in his cause. Richard did not become more cautious, but, on the contrary, more imprudent than ever. He complained loudly of his disappointment, even in the presence of a page. This page is nameless in the story, but he serves to introduce to the King no less a person than Sir James Tyrell, who is represented as willing to do anything to obtain favor, and envious of the influence possessed by others. He undertakes and executes the task which Brackenbury had refused, and for this service we are told he was knighted. All this greatly misrepresents Sir James’ position and influence, if not his character. He not only was a knight long before this, but had been in the preceding year created by Richard himself a knight banneret for his distinguished services during the Scotch campaign. He had been, during Edward IV’s reign, a commissioner for executing the office of lord high constable. He was then master of the King’s henchmen, or pages. He was also master of the horse. If his mere position in the world did not make him disdain to be a hired assassin, he at least did not require to be recommended through the medium of that nameless page.

Moreover, it appears that the fact of the princes having been murdered was held in great doubt for a long time afterward. Even More himself, writing about thirty years later, is obliged to acknowledge that the thing had "so far come in question that some remained long in doubt whether they were in Richard’s days destroyed or no." This is certainly remarkable, when it is considered that it was of the utmost importance for Henry VII to terminate all controversy upon the question. Yet Sir Thomas tells us that these doubts arose not only from the uncertainty men were in whether Perkin Warbeck was the true duke of York, "but for that also that all things were so covertly demeaned, one thing pretended and another meant, that there was nothing so plain and openly proved but that yet, for the common custom of close and covert dealing, men had it ever inwardly suspect." All this, it is urged, may very well suggest that the doubts were reasonable, and that the princes in reality were not destroyed in the days of Richard III. And, indeed, when we consider how many persons, according to More’s account, took part in the murder or had some knowledge of it, it does appear not a little strange that there should have been any difficulty in establishing it on the clearest evidence. For besides Tyrell, Dighton, and Forest, the chief actors, there were Brackenbury, Green the page, one Black will, or will Slaughter, who guarded the princes, and the priest who buried them, all fully aware of the circumstances of the crime.

In Henry VII’s time Brackenbury was dead, and so it is said was the priest; Forest, too, had ended his days miserably in a sanctuary. But it does not appear what had become of either Green or the page. Tyrell and Dighton were the only persons said to have been examined; and though we are told that they both confessed, yet there is a circumstance that makes the confession look exceedingly suspicious. Tyrell was detained in prison, and afterward executed, for a totally different offence; while, as Bacon tells us, "John Dighton, who it seemeth spake best for the King, was forthwith set at liberty." Taking Bacon’s view of the circumstances of the disclosure as if it were infallible, the sceptics here find matter of very grave suspicion. "In truth," says Walpole, "every step of this pretended discovery, as it stands in Lord Bacon, warns us to give no heed to it. Dighton and Tyrell agreed both in a tale, as the King gave out. Their confession, therefore, was not publicly made; and as Sir James Tyrell, too, was suffered to live, but was shut up in the Tower and put to death afterward for we know not what treason, what can we believe but that Dighton was some low mercenary wretch, hired to assume the guilt of a crime he had not committed, and that Sir James Tyrell never did, never would, confess what he had not done, and was therefore put out of the way on a fictitious imputation? It must be observed, too, that no inquiry was made into the murder on the accession of Henry VII—the natural time for it, when the passions of men were heated, and when the Duke of Norfolk, Lord Lovel, Catesby, Ratcliffe, and the real abettors or accomplices of Richard were attainted and executed. No mention of such a murder was made in the very act of parliament that attainted Richard himself and which would have been the most heinous aggravation of his crimes. And no prosecution of the supposed assassins was ever thought of till eleven years afterward, on the appearance of Perkin Warbeck." Such are the striking arguments by which it has been sought to cast a doubt upon the murder, and particularly More’s account of it.

To all which it may be replied, in the first place, that it is by no means necessary to suppose More’s narrative, though it appeared to him the most credible account he had heard, absolutely correct in all its details, especially in those which he mentions as mere reports. His authority was evidently the alleged confession of Tyrell and Dighton, obtained secondhand. This, though true in the main, may not have been absolutely correct, even as it was first delivered, and may have been somewhat less accurate as it was reported to Sir Thomas, who perhaps added from hearsay a few errors of his own, like that about Sir James Tyrell’s knighthood.

Secondly, the argument with regard to Richard’s imprudence, in pursuing the course ascribed to him, goes but little way to discredit the facts, unless it can be shown that caution and foresight were part of his ordinary character. The prevailing notion of Richard III, indeed, is of a cold, deeply politic, scheming, and calculating villain. But I confess I am not satisfied of the justice of such a view. Not only Richard, but all his family, appear to me to have been headstrong and reckless as to consequences. His father lost his life by a chivalrous and quixotic impetuosity; his brother Edward lost his kingdom once by pure carelessness; his brother Clarence fell, no less by lack of wisdom than by lack of honesty; and he himself, at Bosworth, threw away his life by his eagerness to terminate the contest in a personal engagement. Had Richard fully intended to murder his nephews at the time he determined upon dethroning the elder, I have very little doubt that he would have kept his northern forces in London to preserve order in the city till after the deed was done. I for my part do not believe that such was his intention from the first. How much more probable, indeed, that after he had left London the contemplated rising in favor of the princes suggested to him an action which cost him his peace of mind during the whole of his after-life!

Thirdly, the doubts of contemporaries do not appear to have been very general. The expression of Sir Thomas More is only "that some remained in doubt"; and More is not a writer who would have glossed over a fact to please the court. As to Perkin Warbeck, who pretended to be the younger of the princes, Henry VII’s neglect to confute his pretensions may have arisen from other causes than a suspicion that he was the true duke of York. There is no reason to suppose that his followers in England were numerous. The belief in the murder appears to have been general. It was mentioned as a fact by the Chancellor of France, in addressing the estates-general which met at Tours in the following January. It was acknowledged to be true in part by Warbeck himself, who, it has been shown since Walpole’s time, in personating the Duke of York, admitted that his brother Edward had been murdered, though he asserted that he himself had providentially escaped. It is evident that no one dreamed in those days that the story of the murder was altogether a fiction. The utmost that any well-informed person could doubt was whether it had been successfully accomplished as to both the victims.

With regard to the confessions of Tyrell and Dighton, Bacon has certainly spoken without warrant in stating that they were examined at the time of Warbeck’s appearance. The time when they were examined is stated by Sir Thomas More to have been when Tyrell was confined in the Tower for treason against Henry VII, which was in 1502, three years after Warbeck’s execution. Before that date there is no ground for believing that Tyrell’s guilt in regard to the murder was generally known. Before that date, indeed, the world seems to have had no conception in what manner the crime was committed, and the common story seems to have been that Richard had put his nephews to the sword; but the confession of Tyrell at once put an end to this surmise, and we hear of it no longer. Henry VII assuredly did not for a long time treat him as a criminal; for not only did he hold under Henry the office of captain of Guisnes, but he was employed by the King in an expedition against Flanders. Nay, even after Warbeck had been taken and confessed his imposture, Tyrell was employed on an important embassy to Maximilian, King of the Romans. It is quite clear, therefore, that he was never questioned about the murder in consequence of Warbeck’s pretensions. But being afterward condemned to death on a charge of treason—not an unknown charge, as Walpole imagines, but a charge of having treasonably aided the escape of the Earl of Suffolk—he was then, as More says, examined about it in the Tower, having probably made a voluntary confession of guilt to ease his conscience before his execution.

No doubt, after all, the murder rests upon the testimony of only a very few original authorities, but this is simply owing to the scantiness of contemporary historians. It is true, also, that of these there are two who only mention it as a report; but it must be observed that neither of them expresses the smallest doubt of its truth, and one of them more than hints that he believes it as a fact. How, indeed, could there possibly be two opinions about a rumor of this kind, seeing that it was never contradicted by the King himself? Assuredly from this time the conduct both of Richard and his enemies was distinctly governed by the belief that his nephews were no longer alive.

Moreover, the truth of the story seems to be corroborated by a discovery which took place in the reign of Charles II. In the process of altering the staircase leading to the chapel in the White Tower, the skeletons of two young lads, whose apparent ages agreed with those of the unfortunate princes, were found buried under a heap of stones. Their place of sepulture corresponded with the situation mentioned in the confession of the murderers, so that the report alluded to by More of the removal of the bodies seems to have been a mistake. The antiquaries of the day had no doubt they were the remains of young Edward V and his brother, and King Charles caused them to be fittingly interred in Henry VII’s chapel at Westminster. A Latin inscription marks the spot and tells of the discovery.

We have no doubt, therefore, that the dreadful deed was done. It was done, indeed, in profound secrecy; the fact, I suspect, remained some little time unknown; and for years after there was no certainty as to the way it was performed. Years elapsed even before the world suspected the foul blot upon Tyrell’s knighthood, and he enjoyed the favor both of Richard and of his successor; but at last the truth came out.

As to the other agents in the business, various entries in the Patent Rolls, and in the Docket Book of King Richard’s grants, show that they did not pass unrewarded. Before the murder Green had been appointed comptroller of the customs at Boston, and had also been employed to provide horse meat and litter for the King’s stables; afterward, if we may trust a note by Strype—but I own I cannot find his authority—he was advanced to be receiver of the Isle of Wight and of the castle and lordship of Portchester. To Dighton was granted the office of bailiff of Ayton in Staffordshire. Forest died soon after, and it appears he was keeper of the wardrobe at Barnard castle, but whether appointed before or after the murder there is no evidence to show. Brackenbury received several important grants, some of which were of lands of the late Lord Rivers.

And yet hitherto Richard’s life, though not unmarked by violence, had been free from violence to his own flesh and blood. Even his most unjustifiable measures were somewhat in the nature of self-defence; or if in any case he had stained his hands with the blood of persons absolutely innocent, it was not in his own interest, but in that of his brother, Edward IV. The rough and illegal retribution which he dealt out to Rivers, Vaughan, Hawte, Lord Richard Grey, and Lord Hastings was not more severe than perhaps law itself might have authorized. The disorders of civil war had accustomed the nation to see justice sometimes executed without the due formalities; and his neglect of those formalities had not hitherto made him unpopular. But the license of unchecked power is dangerous, no less to those who wield than to those who suffer it; and it was peculiarly so to one of Richard’s violent and impatient temper. He had been allowed so far to act upon his own arbitrary judgment or will that expediency was fast becoming his only motive and extinguishing within him both humanity and natural affection.

Nevertheless, he was not yet sunk so low as to regard his own unnatural conduct with indifference. Deep and bitter remorse deprived him of all that tranquillity in the possession of power for the attainment of which he had imbrued his hands in blood. "I have heard by credible report," says Sir Thomas More, "of such as were secret with his chamberers, that after this abominable deed done he never had quiet in his mind, he never thought himself sure. Where he went abroad, his eyes whirled about, his body privily fenced, his hand ever on his dagger, his countenance and manner like one always ready to strike again. He took ill rest at nights, lay long waking and musing; sore wearied with care and watch, he rather slumbered than slept. Troubled with fearful dreams, suddenly sometimes started he up, leapt out of his bed and ran about the chamber. So was his restless heart continually tossed and tumbled with the tedious impression and stormy remembrance of his most abominable deed."

Such was the awful retribution that overtook this inhuman King during the two short years that he survived his greatest crime, till the battle of Bosworth completed the measure of his punishment. His repentance came too late.

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Chicago: James Gairdner, "Murder of the Princes in the Tower," The Great Events by Famous Historians, Vol 8 in The Great Events by Famous Historians. Lincoln Memorial University Edition, ed. Rossiter Johnson (Harrogate, TN: The National Alunmi, 1926), Original Sources, accessed July 4, 2022, http://originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=6UAKXHP5RJGEXW8.

MLA: Gairdner, James. "Murder of the Princes in the Tower." The Great Events by Famous Historians, Vol 8, in The Great Events by Famous Historians. Lincoln Memorial University Edition, edited by Rossiter Johnson, Harrogate, TN, The National Alunmi, 1926, Original Sources. 4 Jul. 2022. http://originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=6UAKXHP5RJGEXW8.

Harvard: Gairdner, J, 'Murder of the Princes in the Tower' in The Great Events by Famous Historians, Vol 8. cited in 1926, The Great Events by Famous Historians. Lincoln Memorial University Edition, ed. , The National Alunmi, Harrogate, TN. Original Sources, retrieved 4 July 2022, from http://originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=6UAKXHP5RJGEXW8.